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Looking back: why Kingsley flourishes in tough times

KINGSLEY FIELD, Ore. --

Nestled among alfalfa fields at the southern edge of a small Southern Oregon town, Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon may seem an unlikely place to house perhaps a lone bright spot for the Department of Defense amidst the arid landscape of slashed budgets and shrinking manpower allocations.

Despite large headlines claiming the reserve and active components are locked in open political warfare over a shrinking pool of dollars, the 173rd Fighter Wing is bucking the trend and working hand-in-hand with the U.S. Air Force to bring more than 80 active-duty troop billets Airmen to the Oregon Air National Guard base.

This small base, born in the late 40s to train WWII pilots, is still training pilots and doing so at an ever increasing rate. A confluence of great flying weather, a supportive community, and a Kingsley "No-Slack" culture, which prides itself on hard work, have ushered in an era of frenetic activity.

A parade of contractors tend to multiple construction projects across the base including expanding maintenance facilities, vault and aircrew flight equipment areas and a new readiness center. The increased tempo of flights leaving for the range and returning from training missions is unmistakable as the 114th Fighter Squadron logs more flight hours than ever before a number that will grow yet further with the Total Force Initiative.

It all begs the question, 'how is this possible?'

The answer lies with a group of people whose vision included this visible growth and their unrelenting tenacity in the face of many, many obstacles along the way.

Former wing commander Col. Thomas Schiess recalls when he was a young captain in the early 90s a well-intentioned superior advised him to look for another position elsewhere because this base would close within the year.

In recollecting his tenure at the helm of the 173rd Fighter Wing his urgency is palpable when the subject turns to safeguarding the future of Kingsley Field.

"There was a time when it took our relentless effort to simply gain the F-15 mission, and the Air Force went along reluctantly, but now we have proven that it was the right thing certainly for us but for the Air Force as well." He relates that it was a close call, "we had to force feed it, being politely persistent."

Past and present leaders point to that when asked. Wing leadership points to that tenacity as the biggest reason why Kingsley is flourishing in a harsh environment.

"There are cultural bedrocks that we've had, all the former wing commanders and all the Airmen who have built this opportunity," says Col. Jeremy Baenen, 173rd FW Commander, in reference to the work done to get us to this point. "We just happened to be here at a time in history when this opportunity presented itself and we had the courage to reach out and grab it."

The opportunity may have presented its self but all the pieces critical to seeing it through, did not.

Baenen lists some of them saying, "all the legal pieces and resourcing are complete, we have all the Memorandums of Agreement (MOA's), we have an Installation Development Plan to get funding to accept the mission in grand style, 219 aircraft hangars redone, brand new simulator capability, whole new set of airplanes in with all new avionics, hundreds of millions of dollars in new equipment on the way," and he concludes saying the list goes on.

Lt. Col. Lance McCuiston, formerly the base civil engineer and current mission support group commander adds to that list.

"The city and the county became big pieces of this when they signed letters saying they would develop plans to accommodate us flying up to 7,100 hours. That document signed by the city and the county is what helped us increase the mission--that's why we are good to go for the TFI," he concluded.

Beneath he and others enthusiasm for this concrete realization of many long hours, days, and years lies a restlessness perhaps born of recent setbacks like sequestration and very difficult budget constraints, and McCuiston cautions that in this environment, "these battles challenges will continue, we are not through this; it's a phenomenal success that we have the sole FTU, it's phenomenal success that we have the TFI, but what's next?"

He goes on to say that the next fights endeavors will involve dealing with upgrading the current fleet and then finally looking beyond this aircraft to a new mission.

Schiess's perspective, after more than two decades of service at Kingsley, is both humorous and telling when he says he became "a little more optimistic" about the future of the TFI when we received an actual jet as part of the mission growth, and he will be "a little more optimistic" when he sees an actual active duty Airman arrive at Kingsley. He says this with a smile, but he clearly communicates that he doesn't count on anything until it's completely realized.

For his part Baenen expresses clear optimism about the future, "we are in a really, really good place," but he does grant that one must prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

These past and present 173rd Fighter Wing leaders emphasize their belief that without vision, and most especially the hard work to see it through, the base would look very different. None went so far as to say the base wouldn't exist but they all agreed it would be smaller, provide fewer jobs, and if actions speak louder than words then they fought and continue to fight like its existence does depend on them. Perhaps it does.